Saving treasured art after Italy’s major earthquake

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A firefighter carries away a painting from San Lorenzo e Flaviano church following an earthquake in San Lorenzo, central Italy, August 26, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi - RTX2N7AS

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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: The Lazio region around Rome, is one of Italy’s most picturesque — a place where even the smallest mountain villages can be the home of a medieval church and priceless artwork. It’s also one of the country’s most seismically active regions.

A powerful earthquake here in August caused at least 4-and-half-billion dollars in damage, according to Italy’s prime minister. Many ancient structures collapsed, and 297 people died.

The worst loss of life and damage occurred in Amatrice, celebrated as the town of 100 churches, where the clock in the 16th century bell tower stands frozen in time: 3:36am…the moment the earthquake struck.

Italian relief workers still flood the earthquake zone in and around Amatrice, home to more than  4-thousand people.

Some help the residents return to their homes, or if a structure is deemed unsafe, retrieve personal items like clothes, documents, and family portraits.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So they think all of the people in this town are never going to come back, because it’s going to take 15 to 20 years to rebuild everything, and by that point they are not going to want to live here anyway because they’re afraid of another earthquake happening.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Other relief workers are part of an elite team, including police and firefighters, on an urgent mission to save the area’s cultural heritage.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They go door to door examining buildings and taking photographs to quickly and methodically account for thousands of works of art in churches, museums and public buildings.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So this is a list of everything that they’re saving. They go in and check on the art to see that it’s still there. To see that it’s in good shape.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Captain Lanfranco Disibio is with the Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, better known as the Art Squad. Set up in the 1960s to battle art and antiques fraud, its role expanded into earthquake crisis response. The Art Squad was on the ground in Amatrice on day one.

CAPTAIN LANFRANCO DISIBIO (translated from Italian): Naturally, the first priority was to save human lives. Our work to save artwork begins once we know that all the people in a specific area have been saved or accounted for. Apart from their intrinsic historic and artistic value, it’s important to save artwork that has an important devotional value to the people in the area that was badly hit. It’s important to preserve such works to one day bring them back to their original churches.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The process typically starts with the Vigili Del Fuoco, the fire and rescue service, whose members have the training and skills necessary to enter earthquake-damaged buildings still at risk from continuing aftershocks. Ciro Bolognese is one of their structural engineers. He explained one of their most complicated tasks so far — using drones and robots from a research project called TRADR, funded by the European Union — to record this video inside two of Amatrice’s most important churches, both partially collapsed.

CIRO BOLOGNESE: We have a clearer idea of what’s inside the church, even if we haven’t gone inside the church.”

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Inside the Church of Sant’Agostino, they could see paintings still hanging on the walls — exposed to the elements. The video helped firefighters decide on the safest way to remove them.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: A few days later firemen were lowered into the church on ropes to carefully lift out the paintings, now being stored with other rescued objects in a nearby warehouse.

Some art is much harder to save: for instance, these wall paintings, or frescos, in Amatrice’s other large church, the Basilica of San Francesco. The video shows parts of them have crumbled to the ground.

Bolognese says these images will be used to make three-dimensional models to help the Culture Ministry come up with a plan to save these structures.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Is the work you are doing urgent?”

CIRO BOLOGNESE: Yes. It’s urgent because we have to stop the movement of the church. Otherwise, with the aftershocks, other parts could collapse, and we want to avoid that.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Wow. So this is a fresco that’s inside of the apse of the church of St Francis.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Brunella Fratoddi is a curator at the Municipal Museum of Amatrice. She’s living in a tent and trailer in her garden now, because she’s not sure if her house is secure.

Fratoddi took these photos of the museum, which like most of the town’s historic center, was heavily damaged.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: It’s a painting..,One of the most important that they were able to rescue from the museum of Amatrice. The Art Squad was able to save a lot, but not all of the art inside.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  Okay, she hopes this fresco is still there inside the museum because it was on the wall of the museum and she doesn’t know how well it stood up during the earthquake.

How does it make you feel to see the art ruined and at risk?”

BRUNELLA FRATODDI, MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF AMATRICE  (translated from Italian): It cuts straight to the heart. It feels awful knowing that some things I’ll never see again, and that the town will never be the same again. I hope we can rebuild and retrieve our heritage.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And that’s exactly what Italy’s government has vowed…to rebuild Amatrice and the other towns just as they were before…even using the same stones whenever possible. Sergio Pirozzi is Amatrice’s mayor, who was widely quoted the day the earthquake hit saying, “Half the town is gone.” Today, he’s looking to the future with optimism.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Can the town be reborn?

MAYOR SERGIO PIROZZI, AMATRICE  (translated from Italian): Sure. Just as it was before. I’m hoping, counting on this.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Take L’Aquila, about an hour away. An earthquake in 2009 devastated this medieval city. Today, its center remains a construction zone with hundreds of buildings still being rebuilt, amid funding setbacks and allegations of corruption.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So every piece of plywood has some piece of art being protected from the elements.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: At this church in L’Aquila, a fire brigade engineer showed us some of the techniques used to stabilize the building — like this metal arch bolted inside the apse of the church. These fixes were supposed to be temporary, but they’ve been in place for seven years. The church still has no roof. Back in Amatrice, the lessons learned in L’Aquila will be applied to structures like Sant’ Agostino.

 CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Can this be made more earthquake resistant so that if a similar earthquake happens in the future it doesn’t happen again?

CIRO BOLOGNESE: Yes. When we repair this church using actual national code for buildings, it will be repaired using materials but also providing the reinforced structures.”

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But many Italians are skeptical, and point to a pair of buildings in Amatrice.

The first is the police headquarters. Following the L’Aquila quake in 2009, it was reinforced to make it more quake resistant. The grey paint and crosses at the top show where steel bars were put in to support the walls. The building is damaged but still standing.

The second building is across the street — this elementary school — which was supposed to have been reinforced, too, but almost completely collapsed. Had the quake struck during the school day, instead of 3 o’clock in the morning, more than 200 children of Amatrice could have been at risk.

Italian authorities are investigating why it and so many other buildings were not more quake resistant.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Certain buildings fell down that perhaps shouldn’t have, such as the school. What kind of assurances will people have that this kind of thing won’t happen again if they come back?

SERGIO PIROZZI (translated from Italian): Unlike the US, Italy’s history goes back more than 1,000 years. But it’s not so much a question of age. It’s about how much money is available. If you study things for a moment, there’s a substantial difference between improvement and conforming to code. Conforming to code costs a lot of money. Just improving a building costs less money.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: I asked the mayor, in the future, will you implement just improvements or will you conform to code?

SERGIO PIROZZI (translated from Italian): It depends on how much the State wants to spend. Reconstruction will happen according to the right resources available. With the right resources, you can do something. If you don’t have the right resources, you can’t.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Before reconstruction begins, the Art Squad needs to finish its job. So far, it’s been able to save about 300 paintings, sculptures, and other artworks, but there are still hundreds they haven’t reached yet or accounted for in the area.

Sometimes local people need to be reassured that the art taken away for safekeeping will not be lost or forgotten, and eventually will be returned, like this church caretaker.  Who’s going to look after it, he asks?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For museum curator Brunella Fratoddi, restoring the art treasures is the key to bringing back tourists and the people who called Amatrice home.

BRUNELLA FRATODDI  (translated from Italian): Amatrice was voted one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. Its art could be a stimulus to rebuild this city as it was.

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